Empowering the Invisible Half

Empowering Women

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August 09, 2015 16:57 EDT

Worldwide, existing gender imbalances in parliamentary representation stymie growth and development.

Although universal equality is a cornerstone of all democratic societies, it is a norm followed more in the breach than custom. Women have been historically discriminated against and marginalized simply by virtue of their gender. They are incessantly subjected to various forms of violence—including physical, sexual and economical, as well as psychological—which are perpetuated by prevailing stereotypes (cultural and religious).

A staggering 70% of women experience violence in their lifetime, most of which goes unreported. Over 700 million women alive today were married as children (below 18 years of age), and one in three of them were wed before 15.

Around 120 million girls under the age of 20 (about one in ten) have been forced into sexual intercourse or other sexual acts at some point in their lives. It is estimated that over 80% of the displaced populations in the world are women and children.

Globally, an estimated 41% of women-headed households live below the locally defined poverty line, and over one-third of these are either homeless or living in inadequate housing facilities.

The sad global reality is that women enjoy little or no freedom, whether economic, social or political. Patriarchal attitudes and rigid societal norms severely constrict their access to public services and institutions, which adversely affects their capabilities.

The UN Millennium Project 2005 highlighted how this lack of access has directly led to low levels of education, hunger and poor health and consequentially leads to critical developmental problems. A recent World Bank report found that 65% of “women with primary education or less are married as children, [consequently] lack control over household resources, and condone wife-beating, compared with 5 percent of women who finish high school.”

The same report found that “removing constraints and unleashing women’s full productive potential can yield enormous dividends that help make whole societies more resilient and more prosperous” in previously unexplored ways.

For instance, just delaying marriage can lead to enhanced educational development and lower birth rates, which increases life expectancy of both women and children. While women’s rights (foremost the freedoms of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship) and entitlements have been institutionalized by international law and are complemented by national jurisdiction, they are often ignored, poorly implemented or deliberately suppressed.

Why is it that the safety and security of women are not adequately taken up at the political level, except particularistically—that is, in a knee-jerk manner in response to horrifying incidents like a much publicized rape or murder?

Laws Don’t Make a Better Society

The answer to this lies not in the laws that govern a society. In recognizing that “women … remain sidelined at all levels of decision-making, especially in politics, and [that] … our societies are still chiefly organized and run as their male element may determine,” the Beijing Parliamentary Declaration held that “the concept of democracy would only come into its own when major policy objectives and national legislation were decided upon jointly by men and women with equal regard for the specific interests and aptitudes of each half of the population.”

Efforts at institutionalizing structural reforms tacitly suppose that the interests of women would be addressed if, among other things, they are adequately represented in legislatures.

These efforts accordingly focus on how to achieve the “critical mass” required to establish gender parity in policy formulation, which has been lacking so far. They routinely point to the fact that women continue to be woefully underrepresented in parliaments the world over. In fact, the goal of 30% representation, which is considered a level of critical mass for women to have an impact in parliament, has only been reached in 25 countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).

There is undoubtedly some merit to such an argument. As the IPU highlighted, between 1945 and 2009, there has been a glacial six-fold increase in the proportion of women parliamentarians in lower houses, and a nine-fold increase in upper houses. Of the 44,925 legislators globally, a mere 9,762 (or 21.9%) are women. While this average is significantly higher in Nordic countries, which boast of 42% female legislators, only 23.7% of legislators in the rest of Europe are women. The situation is worse in Sub-Saharan Africa (22.1%), Asia (18.8%) and Arab states (18%).

Globally, women hold only 17% of all ministerial portfolios, and most of these are soft portfolios. Moreover, women are also underrepresented in all other spheres of governance and decision-making the world over. In fact, India typifies the persistent inequality between women and men.

Consider, for example, the percentage of women in the elite Indian Administrative Services, which registered only a marginal increase from 10.3% in 1980 (188 of 1,821) to 13.7% in 2009 (604 of 4,572). Similarly, the Indian Foreign Service boasts just 142 women, amounting to about 19% of the total. Women consist of merely 5.3% of the total police force in India . Likewise, in the judiciary, there are just two female judges in the Supreme Court (comprising 7% of the total) and only 52 out of 605 High Court judges.

Kinder, Gentler Politics?

It is often pointed out that these existing gender imbalances in parliamentary representation have cemented an “institutional masculinity [that] has been an invisible characteristic of most legislatures,” and that this masculine bias has consequentially stunted the nature of politics.

For instance, issues that concern the safety and well-being of women and children—be they about malnutrition, rape, economic security, etc—are routinely overlooked in legislative debates and, if they are taken, are treated cursorily.

One of the best examples of this is the vehement opposition (both by disrupting parliament and by violence on the floor of the house) of a number of male parliamentarians in India to the introduction and passage of the Constitution (108th) Amendment Bill, which reserves 33% of all elected posts for women.

Another prominent example is India’s Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Re-dressal) Act 2013. The draft bill myopically laid the burden of proof on the victim by enshrining stringent provisions for them if the complaint could not be proved.

It is held that such issues can be substantially remedied by a higher number of women legislators whose presence (once it reaches “critical mass”) would “introduce a kinder, gentler politics … characterized by co-operation rather than conflict, collaboration rather than hierarchy, honesty rather than sleaze.”

Such an understanding is conceptually couched in the notion of “politics of presence,” which emphasizes the participation of key groups for decisions to be truly inclusive and, more specifically, representative. While it is somewhat exclusivist to presuppose that only those from a particular group or community can genuinely represent the interests of their respective constituencies, evidence from Rwanda has conclusively showed that female legislators tend to focus on issues in a manner quite differently from male legislators.

Rwanda became the first country in the world to elect a majority of women legislators (56.3%) to its lower house in September 2008. A pioneering generation—because of how it has successfully challenged traditional gender roles and embraced high profile positions—Rwanda’s female parliamentarians have spearheaded, among other things, enhanced allocations on education, health care and gender-sensitive issues.

A report on Rwanda highlights how the former guarantees—for the first time in the country’s history—women’s rights to inherit land, while the latter comprehensively “criminalizes murder, rape, the use of children for ‘dehumanizing acts’, exploitation, neglect and abandonment, and forced or premature [before the age of 21] marriage.”

Similarly, primary and secondary schooling has been made mandatory for all children (male and female). This has enhanced at least access to, if not quality of, education.

As has been pointed out, almost all legislators in Rwanda attribute the heightened sensitivity with which issues are dealt with, to “women’s experience(s) as mothers,” which was “central to not just their motivation, but also their performance as parliamentarians.” While feminists would rightly consider this reasoning as regressive, the point being considered here is that the presence of female legislators shapes policies and legislation uniquely. The real question is whether gender-balanced parliaments can alter the structure of politics and policy formulation, and whether this model can (and should) be replicated elsewhere in the world.

For one, it must be recognized that the conditions which allowed for such a successful transition in Rwanda were, and continue to be, dramatically different than those that exist in other developing countries. The enhanced presence of women in Rwanda’s parliament is a consequence of historical circumstances (following the 1994 genocide, 70% of Rwanda’s population was female, and it still continues to be over 50%) and specific state-led interventions that instituted a quota system, a constitutional guarantee and radically altered electoral structures.

While these interventions can certainly be replicated elsewhere, proponents of the Rwandan model often overlook a common criticism raised by Rwanda’s own Gender Monitoring Committee—namely that a wide gap exists between policy and practice because gender equality “has not fully trickled down to the grassroots level.”

Although this can only be verified empirically, it is this author’s contention that the gap exists because this particular approach overemphasizes the value in counting the numbers of women present in legislatures, and hence implicitly focuses only on the “descriptive representation” of women. In doing this, it exaggerates the actual control legislators have over policy formulation and, equally importantly, its execution.

Descriptive Representation

Former US President Woodrow Wilson once famously highlighted that “administration lies outside the proper sphere of politics.” In doing so, he was simply articulating what was widely acknowledged—namely that the administrative apparatus of the state wielded significant power over both policy formulation and execution because legislators simply do not have the time or expertise to oversee this process minutely. Therefore, it is important to institutionalize equitable representation of women in all spheres of the executive and not just the legislature, for it is only then that women can be substantively represented.

Studies have showed that women can undeniably bring a unique and valuable perspective to not just policy formulation, but also their implementation by “developing meaningful gender mainstreaming strategies.” For instance, evidence from panchayats (local village councils, in whom are vested both legislative and executive functions) in India has showed how the number and quality of drinking water projects in areas with female-led councils was 62% higher than in those with male-led councils.

The inclusion of women in policy-making and project implementation can, therefore, not only enhance the quality of policies, but also make development much more sustainable.

As a society, we need to question ourselves about who we are and who we want to be. Concurring with Jawaharlal Nehru on the penultimate objective of a good society, Mahatma Gandhi once argued that “the real question … is how to bring about man’s highest intellectual, economic, political and moral development … in this there should be an equal right and opportunity for all.” If we are to be a just society, we must institutionalize true equality through radical structural reforms. As Nehru famously argued, it is only then that we can guarantee “justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Anton_Ivanov /

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